SeaWorld parks offer plenty of marine mammal themed shows, exhibits, and rides to regular park guests, but my family wanted a more in-depth experience. We wanted to meet the people who work at SeaWorld and find out what it was like to care for the animals who call SeaWorld home.
It was this desire that led us to sign up for the Marine Mammal Keeper Experience at SeaWorld Orlando. The program promised up-close encounters with dolphins, beluga whales, and sea lions.
Our behind-the-scenes day with SeaWorld animal keeper, Lauren, delivered exactly what was promised and taught us a few things along the way.
Lesson #1: Dolphins are smart and love to play.
We had a few different interactions with dolphins during our visit.
Our first encounter was in the dolphin lagoon where we knelt in the water with a few dolphins. A dolphin keeper taught us to give the dolphins cues which the dolphins followed with certain behaviors. We rewarded them with fish.
Afterward, we went to an underwater viewing area armed with basketballs. Lauren let us play ball with the dolphins through the glass. When the ball bounced on the glass, the dolphins acted like they were going to catch it, but they seemed to know that we were only playing “pretend catch.” They never bumped the glass.
We also visited the Dolphin Nursery pool. There, mother dolphins and their babies swam in a huge pool. We had no treats or cues to offer. We just hung out with the dolphins. Many of them came by to have a look at us. Some swam close and let us stroke their backs. One dolphin was intent on splashing us, especially Lauren, the only person not wearing a wetsuit.
Lesson #2: Belugas have thick skin.
Belugas’ skin feels like smooth, cold rubber. Their bodies are fairly solid, like an inner tube overfilled with jelly, except for their soft and squishy forehead, the melon. The thick skin helps keep belugas warm in the icy water that they inhabit both in the wild and at SeaWorld. We found out just how cold the water is when we knelt in it as the beluga keepers taught us how to cue different beluga behaviors.
Lesson #3: Sea lions have excellent eye-mouth coordination.
One of our duties as marine mammal keepers was to feed the sea lions on exhibit at Pacific Point Preserve. We carried heavy buckets of small fish out to the exhibit, then we grabbed fish and tossed them to the eager sea lions. As long as our aim was decent, the sea lions skillfully plucked the “flying” fish from the air.
Lesson #4: Sea lions and seals are furry.
Because they are often wet, with their hair slicked down, seals and sea lions don’t look very furry. When we pet these animals, we could feel their coarse fur. It felt a lot like petting a wet dog.
Lesson #5: Dolphins, and other marine mammals, sometimes need to see the doctor.
One of our stops in the backstage area was a collection of large pools where animals who had short or long-term medical problems were housed. One of the dolphins had an asthma-like condition, and, just like humans, needed inhaled medication to help relieve the symptoms. Humans inhale the medicine through their mouth. Since dolphins breathe through their blowholes, the medical team helped create a special “mask” to fit over his blowhole. This allowed him to comfortably receive his medicine.
Lesson #6: Animals can be taught to participate in their medical care.
At SeaWorld, the keepers and trainers teach the animals behaviors that allow their health to be monitored. Animals are taught to climb onto scales, and to present different body parts for examination or blood draws. The animals are rewarded for their behaviors with fishy treats.
Lesson #7: The keepers at SeaWorld really care about their animals.
We were impressed with the keepers’ knowledge about the animals. They knew their individual personalities. The keepers seemed to enjoy interacting with the animals, and the animals sought out interaction with their keepers, and us, even when the interaction was purely social, with no cues or food involved.
Our behind-the-scenes day at SeaWorld enhanced our understanding of the animals we met. Now, our visits to the park stir up happy memories of our day as marine mammal keepers. It was a day we will never forget. For a detailed review and photos from our day, check out: http://www.mydreamcametrue.com/marinemammalkeeper